Myth Smack: Politics Is About Winning

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Yeah, that’s right. I just said that politics is not about winning. At least not the way that we’re conditioned to think about it. Imagine for a crazy moment that Team Red and Team Blue are not the actual competitors. Imagine if something else motivated our politics. It’s only after that consideration that we’ll get to the truth: politics isn’t about winning.

Much of our political discussion revolves around winning elections. It feels like the end of the world if our political team doesn’t knock it out of the park or crush the opposing team. We use more sports metaphors — boxing, baseball, football — than policy description in our analyses of why politicians are good or bad. We’ve made our strategies zero-sum, organized our discourse to heighten combativeness, and made negotiation verboten. We’ve even color-coded our ideas, with hard lines separating every single policy. You’re either with us or against us, right?

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It makes the stakes incredibly high with each election. The more we focus on winning, the more dangerous it becomes to lose. Losses aren’t just differences of opinion, but society-defining battles for the soul of our nation. Instead of seeing the losing constituents as people whose perspective has been heard and whose needs must be met, we now see them as conquered people who must live under our auspices or leave.

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Yet I’m going to say again: politics is not about winning.

It isn’t about what our current discussions revolve around. It isn’t about who can carry the votes. It isn’t about who has the best media strategy. It isn’t about personalities. It isn’t even about elections.

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So what is the goal of politics, if it’s not about winning? It’s supposed to be about making lives better. We all win when we live in a better, healthier, wealthier, more stable, peaceful society. We all win when more people can reach their potential, whether that’s inventing something we’ve never seen or discovering connections that we never imagined or creating art we always dreamed of.

If there is a game, the rules are: whoever makes the most lives better wins. That is what is supposed to motivate our votes. That is what we’re supposed to be seeking in politicians. That is what our politics is supposed to focus on. We’re supposed to ask who has the best plan to make as many lives better as possible, while creating an environment that helps people be as autonomous and creative and expressive and ambitious as they want to be.

Sometimes Team Blue will have a plan that helps do that. Sometimes it will be Team Red. All of the time, both teams are supposed to be aiming for that. They’re not competitors; they’re allies. It’s not direct competition that we’re talking about; it’s more like golf.

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The course is hard and it’s equally hard for everyone, testing the whole breadth of your skills. The winner never directly touches or attacks anyone; they simply play the course the best over four days. The other players aren’t losers; they’re talented players who didn’t achieve exactly what they wanted from themselves. Nonetheless, they can celebrate the talent and achievement of the winner, because surviving the course takes a lot of effort.

I could keep going with that metaphor, but really, you get the point. Politics is all of us struggling together to build the best society we can. It’s not a competition, so it’s not about winning. And yes, it does feel good when you work on or donate to a campaign that succeeds. Yes, it is nice when your ideological allies get to dominate the halls of power. But the point isn’t just to get the fancy office and the TV slots and the lobbyist steak. The point is to have a plan that’s so great that people want you to have the power to enact it. The point is to help make lives better so that people can focus less on politics and more on their stamp collection or novel or small business or new baby.

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Because when politics is all about winning? We’re all losing.

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